Kellan held a pair of wooden cups as Ran filled them with water from a skin, and then held one out to me. “Here, you look like you need it.”
I nodded, and took the cup from him. “Thanks.” With my free hand, I wiped my sleeve across my sweaty brow, and leaned back against the wagon, resting my elbow on the stacks of spear-hafts piled up inside. I took a deep drink from the cup. Ran gave each of us a quick nod, and then slung the skin over his shoulder and headed on down the line, toward where Bryce Haeward and Munder am Leward were sitting back to back on a boulder twice the size of the wagon.
Kellan set his cup down on the wagon and leaned against the wheel next to me. He gestured up the slope. “You think we’ll get everyone to the top before dark?”
I shrugged. “If we don’t, I’m sure Sir Hagan will have us breaking out the torches, and will be postponing dinner until everyone’s at the top.”
“That’s… probably true. Hells.”
We both stared up the hill for a moment. The wagon we were leaning against, the wagon I’d been either lifting, shoving or pulling for most of the morning, was about a third of the way up a long slope made up of loose rock, a scree that lead from a steep and narrow defile maybe eighty feet above us down to the grassy flats below.
It’d been eight days since we’d broken our camp in the woods and begun our march southward. The first couple of days had been relatively easy going, but when we finally left the wood and begun crossing the Midland Dells we also left the road behind, striking out cross-land up into the hills. What appeared to be smooth, rolling meadows actually concealed large stones, rabbit holes and other obstacles, and the terrain as a whole sloped deceptively uphill, taking a heavy toll on the muscles of my legs. When we stopped at the end of the fourth day, my calves burned so much that I could hardly step without wincing. The marching didn’t seem to bother Kellan or Oskar, though, and even Ran seemed to be doing fine, so there was no way I was going to mention my discomfort, let alone stop.
I had thought the fifth day would be the worst, as the fire in my legs came to a head and then started to recede, but then came the sixth day, when we crested a hill only to find that across the next shallow gully we faced a sheer bluff of pale stone, thrusting up a hundred feet from the valley floor. I gaped at the obstacle; surely, we wouldn’t be expected to climb this? I looked down at our column, stretching out ahead of us, and followed the line as it came near to the base of the cliff, then snaked forward eastward along the valley.
When we made camp that evening, Sir Hagan announced that the going ahead would be too rocky and too difficult for the oxen that had so far served us as pack animals. The knights’ chargers could handle the terrain, but only unburdened; the knights would be walking the horses from here on, and the soldiers would be pulling their own wagons.
I’d also thought the seventh day, yesterday, would be the worst, as I traded off turns of pushing and pulling the wagon I now shared with Kellan, Oskar, Bryce and the am Lewards. The ground at the base of the cliff had been littered with even larger stones than the dells, and we found ourselves pushing the wagons back to steer them around something almost as often as we actually drew them forward. Lord Carson’s personal men at the head of the column had hardly slowed their pace, though, covering twelve miles in as many hours before stopping to rest, and we were obliged to keep up.
At the end of the day, though, as the cliffs rose another fifty feet or so above our heads, we’d made camp at the foot of the rocky scree, and Sir Hagan had announced that in the morning we’d start making our way up the slope. Because there wasn’t necessarily a right path up, he’d said, we’d all be finding our own way up, and since there’d be no time to build pulleys or find more ropes than we already had, we’d have to simply muscle the wagons up ourselves.
I took another sip from the cup. A dozen paces ahead of and above us, another group of boys had gotten their cart on the wrong side of a large boulder, and a pair of them were trying to use a pair of boards as levers to push the thing over the top of the rock, aided at the top by another three boys hauling away on a rope they’d braided out of tent guy-lines. They’d made surprisingly good progress; their wagon was halfway up the boulder already, and it looked like all it would need to get it the rest of the way was one good push.
Something wasn’t right, though. As I watched, the wagon began to turn to one side, the same way I’d seen large stones do if I hadn’t tied the hauling rope exactly around the middle. I stood up, dropping my cup, just as Kellan started to say, “I’m not sure it should be doing tha-”
There was a loud crack, and the boys hauling on the rope fell backward, landing on top of each other. For a brief second, the wagon sat still, held up only by the lever boards, but then the boy who was holding the board on the left dropped his lever and tried to jump out of the way.
The wagon crashed down on the rocks, one of the wheels folding under it as the axle snapped. The cargo that’d been inside, rough sacks of root vegetables and rock salt, dumped out across the slope, and the boy that’d panicked and tried to run took a heavy sack of salt to the legs just as he was turning back to see what was happening. His arms flew up and flailed desperately forward, trying to stop his movement, but it wasn’t enough to stop him.
For a moment, a long, horrible moment, the boy seemed to hang there, suspended in the air as I started to move forward, but as my foot landed on hard stone the spell seemed to break, and the boy fell, backward, down the slope. His head came down, hard, on a rock, and snapped forward at an impossible angle. His whole body jerked with the impact, and then lay nearly still, his only movement a twitching of the fingers and feet.
I took one or two more steps forward, but stopped well before I reached the boy, and for a time I just stood there, staring at him.
“Ancestors protect us,” I heard Kellan murmur indistinctly behind me, “is that Gil Carver?” I heard him step up behind me, heard a few different sets of footsteps, but my eyes were locked on the boy’s prone form.
A little while later, maybe a minute, Skelley came scrambling down the slope. “We heard something crash,” he said, glancing around at us, “is everyone all right? Are any of you hurt?”
Rewell Potter, the boy who’d been on the other lever, shook his head and pointed down at Gil. Skelley slid down the rock above the boy, stooping down to briefly examine him, and then shook his head. He stood, and turned to our group. “Pull one of your tents out of the cart there. We’ll wrap him up in the canvas, and these lads can help you with the extra weight.” He closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand, and frowned. “We’ll build him a cairn when we reach the top, but for now we need to get underway again.” He gestured toward the other boys. “Decide which two of you will be helping with this wagon. The rest of you, pick up whatever you can carry and continue upward. I’ll try to make sure the rest of the cargo makes it up after you.”
For a long moment, we all just stood there, staring at Skelley. He pulled his hand down across his face, and then raised his eyebrows at us. “Today, lads! Get moving!” he barked.
I jumped, and turned back toward our wagon. Ran had already begun moving the spear-hafts and tent poles aside, and he, Kellan, Oskar and I all worked together to pull out the our tent’s ground tarp, a long rectangle of rough canvas that would serve as Gil Carver’s shroud.
It was well dark when we finally reached the top of the slope with Gil’s body tied to the top of the wagon. Torches had, indeed, been lit. The defile itself was too narrow to camp in, but another half an hour or so of easier trekking lead us to a wide spot in the canyon. We didn’t unpack the wagon or set up our tent that night, and I don’t remember whether I ate anything or not before climbing into my bedroll.
I don’t know how long I stared up at the starry sky, feeling exhausted and numb, but while morning seemed to come quickly, I hardly felt like I’d slept at all.
In the morning, Skelley taught us how to build a cairn.